I’m traveling alone to Sacramento, seated on the aisle in the midsection of the airplane. I arrive at my row before my seatmates, because my Delta credit card lets me board after passengers who are first class, Sky Priority or disabled, but before the huddled masses.
I sit, watching the oncoming passengers, fervently hoping that the largest ones — tall or wide — will not sit next to me.
Eventually a young mom, traveling with her daughter, gestures at the seats. I stand as Mom ushers the little girl, probably three years old, to the window seat and sits in the middle herself. Mom is petite. I am happy. The little girl looks at me. I wave and say “hi.”
I’ve got my Kindle with me but I pause before picking it up again, in case the mom wants to say “hello” or share some small talk. She says nothing. The little girl directs her remarks at Mom. “I want my candy,” she says, and as far as I can tell, she gets it.
For the next couple of hours I wonder if this mother knows how lucky she is. I have flown with my grandsons, 2 and 4, to Chicago more than once. This woman’s child responds with quiet pleasure to snacks, to games on Mom’s cell phone and to something she watches on a tiny video player. She clicks her seat belt on when she’s supposed to and off only when Mom says “OK.”
What a perfect age, I think to myself. Then I remember my grandsons who are about the same age, but are in constant motion in their seats. What a perfect sex, I think to myself, a little guiltily.
Mom never speaks to me, so I remain silent, a weird thing when you think about it. We’re as close as my husband and I are when we’re sleeping, and I’m overhearing every interaction she has with her child, but we never exchange a word.
It’s a three-and-a-half hour flight. My questions are these:
When do strangers choose to talk to each other and why? When they could talk to each other but don’t, is it due to shyness?
What are some other reasons for silence? Does a stranger’s conversation feel like an invasion of our personal time or space? Has our new plugged-in culture of Kindles, IPods and tablets made conversation unnecessary because we have a million other ways to avert boredom?
If it were a couple sitting next to me, I don’t think I’d expect conversation, but a mother and child are different. The whole world talks to children. When my kids were young in the days before DVD players, I viewed friendly adults as their best chance at amusement during the long boring flight. Not everyone wants to talk to children, but I loved the people who did.
With the slightest encouragement, I would have talked to this child.
Halfway through the flight, the little girl in 23A spills her full cup of apple juice. Mom pushes her to her feet immediately, exclaims about the mess, and tries to dry the seat with two 3-inch square napkins that came with the beverages.
“I want to sit.”
“No, the seat’s all wet. Keep standing.”
“Would you like me to go ask for some napkins?” I say, my first words to the young mother.
I hurry down the aisle as if I were Grandma, pushing past the line waiting for the bathroom, and quickly asking the flight attendant for more napkins. When I arrive back at row 23, Mom smiles gratefully and starts rubbing the seat hard. Soon her daughter is back in place, DVD playing, happy again.
Mom pulls out a similar player, puts on ear buds, and watches.
I turn back to my Kindle.
An hour later, the flight ends. Mom and I have said nothing to each other since the apple juice incident. I stand up first, because I’m on the aisle, but I let Mom and daughter get out ahead of me. After we exit, I don’t see them again.
I haven’t been bored on this trip. I had plenty to read and I had no need to chat with a stranger. I have little children in my life and don’t need to befriend a young girl who was happy with her video.
So all was well (except the spill) and no humanness was exchanged (except for a moment after the spill) and I wonder, more and more, if that’s just the way it is.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org